After Whistle Blows on NFL, ESPN Hands Off to Originals

ESPN will bridge the Sunday-night programming gap between the National Football League and Major League Baseball seasons with original entertainment programming.

From Jan. 20 through March, the network will present a Sunday-night primetime block of sports-themed fare. It will feature episodes from the documentary series The Life, new reality/game shows such as Beg, Borrow and B.S.
and Pardon The Interruption, and the network's original film A Season On The Brink: A Year With Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers.
The original sports-entertainment programs, which will shift to Tuesdays from June through November, are intended to expand the network's audience of avid male sports fans.

"We've been primarily a live-event, news and information service and through that we've built a strong and loyal audience," said ESPN senior vice president and general manager Mark Shapiro. "But the environment is changing, so we want to give our audience more viewing alternatives with our entertainment programming."

ESPN will also counterprogram the Super Bowl on Jan. 27 with the classic boxing movie Raging Bull.
Shapiro said he hopes to include "current-day interviews" with the film's director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro as part of the telecast.

In the interim, the network will kick off a new season of exclusive NFL Sunday Night Football
telecasts on Sept. 9. It's the fourth season in ESPN's eight-year, $4.8 billion deal with the league.

The network stands poised to improve its NFL ratings slide, said Shapiro, as the games will not face competition from any major political races, such as last year's lengthy and controversial presidential election. ESPN games averaged a 7.05 in 2000, 13 percent below 1999 numbers.

Shapiro is encouraged by Nielsen Media Research returns from the network's first three preseason games: The ratings were up 16 percent compared with 2000.

"The NFL is our highest-rated programming and I believe this is the year we can blow the ratings out of the water," Shapiro said. "I think people are really hyped for the new season and we're looking to get through a season of NFL unfettered and without outside interruptions."

ESPN hopes to increase Hispanic viewership by offering Spanish-language NFL telecasts through its ESPN Deportes service, Shapiro said.

Along with its weekly NFL Primetime
and Monday Night Countdown
preview shows, the network will debut
The NFL Films Hour
in October. The Tuesday night show will feature programming from the NFL Films archives mixed with fare created through ESPN's Original Entertainment division, Shapiro said.

In April, the network will resume its exclusive Major League Baseball telecasts on Sunday and Wednesday nights – presuming there isn't a baseball work stoppage. MLB's collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association ends after this season.

The network is hoping this year's pennant races will help erase a ratings decline. Through Aug. 18, ESPN averaged a 1.26 rating for its Sunday baseball telecasts, down 9 percent from last year's figures, said the network.

Overall, ESPN saw its primetime ratings slip 9 percent this summer to a 1.0, from May 28 through Aug. 26, according to Nielsen.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.